The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
~Craig Courtney

Through the winter, I feed the sparrows, the woodpeckers and chickadees, the juncos and finches, and yes — even the starlings. They would be fine without my daily contribution to their well-being, but in return for my provision of seeds, I am able to enjoy their spirited liveliness and their gracious ability to share the bounty with one another.

These birds give back to me simply by showing up, without ever realizing what their presence means to me.

How much more does God lay out for me on a daily basis to sustain me so I show up for Him? How oblivious am I to His gracious and profound gifts? How willingly do I share these gifts with others?

Unlike the birds, I could never survive on my own without His watchful care.

When life feels overwhelming, when I am filled with worries, sorrow, regrets and pain, I seek out this God who cares even for sparrows. He knows how to quiet my troubles and strengthen my faith and perseverance, a comfort that extends far beyond sunflower seeds.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…


God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliv’rance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide In
Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,
May Your love keep us all our days,
May Your love keep us all our days. Amen.
~Craig Courtney

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Who Can Know?

I do not like to think about my life,
one lived too often without original fire.


I would rather walk among the serious trees,
hooded by important weather, by immense silences.


I’d rather unravel the wind’s calligraphies,
letter by letter, and spell myself into the world,


a glittering altar of atoms, all aswirl.
Who can know what will happen to each of us,


as time’s currents bend and assail us,
as gravity pulls us further into ourselves?


Better to be buoyed skyward, to modestly reach out
to the palaver of raindrops, to the silky leaves,


so that the air’s amazement stirs an answering
ripple among my own heavy branches.


Let me lose myself in the star’s mute company,
among the steady wanderers of night


whose eyes ignite a cupola of yearnings.
Crown me with a wreath of stars unmoored


from desire, untampered by this ache
for a blaze beyond the tremor of my fingertips.

~Maurya Simon, “A Thousand Acres of Light” from Cartographies 

I take myself too seriously,
thinking everything in my life must be planned
so I am prepared for what could happen next –

Of course it is impossible
as who can know?

Each day the unexpected happens
if I am willing to recognize it:
the rush of the wind, the drenching of raindrops,
the tingle of the winter sun on my face.

In that moment I might find endless perfection.

Even the thriving among us may lie down this night
and fail to wake tomorrow,
atoms toppled over, leaves shriveled, roots exposed,
no longer needing to breathe
much sooner than planned.

Let me lose myself in that thought:
what is lost here is more than replaced by
the joy of beholding the Face of the Eternal God.

Faire is the heav’n, where happy souls have place,
In full enjoyment of felicitie,
Whence they doe still behold the glorious face
Of the divine, eternall Majestie…

Yet farre more faire be those bright Cherubins
Which all with golden wings are overdight,
And those eternall burning Seraphins,
Which from their faces dart out fierie light;
Yer fairer than they both, and much more bright,
Be th’ Angels and Archangels which attend
On God’s owne person, without rest or end.

These then is faire each other farre excelling
As to the Highest they approach more neare,
Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling
Fairer than all the rest which there appeare,
Though all their beauties joynd together were:
How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse
The image of such endlesse perfectnesse?
~Edmund Spenser

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A Power That Moves Through the World

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems.

There is so much about this world I don’t understand – headline news of each day seems to cause more questions and a sense of even deeper mystery. There are times when I feel all my hairs rising in gooseflesh at my privilege of being alive witnessing history as it plays out now, and wondering where it will lead to.

I don’t have to have answers now to appreciate the mystery of the gift given to me each day.

Half a lifetime ago, I was far more confident of the extent of my learned knowledge after so many years in school and training; now I am far more content about knowing there is much I will never understand.

All shall be revealed in the fullness of time.
And time is getting fuller by the minute.

I want to know why too many are taken from us too young, why there is persisting darkness and evil causing us fear and suffering, why we stumble and fall and fail before we can ever consider flying. I want to know why we can’t trust one another or trust God when there are simply things that can’t be known yet.

Most of all I need faith that God has my life and your life in His hands. His power moving through our hearts is real and true and trustworthy even if we don’t know all the answers to our questions yet.

So like sheep, huddled and frightened, we wait for our Shepherd’s voice to tell us what comes next. He leaves the light on for us when we are overwhelmed by the darkness.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Dark Blanket of Peace

Well I know now the feel of dirt under the nails,
I know now the rhythm of furrowed ground under foot,
I have learned the sounds to listen for in the dusk,
the dawning and the noon.

I have held cornfields in the palm of my hand,
I have let the swaying wheat and rye run through my fingers,
I have learned when to be glad for sunlight and for sudden
thaw and for rain.

I know now what weariness is when the mind stops
and night is a dark blanket of peace and forgetting
and the morning breaks to the same ritual and the same
demands and the silence.
~Jane Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

Seven-thirty. Driving northwest out of town,
the snowscape dusky, sky tinted smoky peach.
In the rear view mirror, a bright orange glow
suffuses the stubbly treeline. Suddenly a column
of brightness shoots from the horizon,
a pillar of fire! One eye on the road,
I watch behind me the head of a golden
child begin to push up between the black knees
of the hills. Two weeks out from Solstice, the sun
so near winter it seems to rise in the south.
A fiery angel stands over his cradle of branches.
And what strange travelers come to honor him?
And what gift will I bring to him this day?
~Thomas Smith “Advent Dawn” from The Glory

And he shall be their peace.
Micah 5:5

I tossed and turned last night — my thoughts too busy, my blankets twisted in turmoil, my muscles too tight.  

The worries of the day required serious wrestling in the dark rather than settling silent and forgotten under my pillow after prayer.

Yet, as ever, morning dawns anew and once again I’m comforted by the rhythm of emerging light overwhelming the night. This ritual of starting fresh remembers the promises given to us again and again in His Word.

In the name of peace today, I will get my hands dirty digging a hole deep enough to hold the worries that kept me awake in the night.

And tomorrow, even if I try to remember, I will have forgotten where exactly I buried them.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”


Peace, peace, peace on earth
and good will to all.
This is the time for joy
This is the time for love
Now let us all sing together
of peace, peace, peace on earth.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: No Longer Homeless

Today is my mother’s birthday,
but she’s not here to celebrate
by opening a flowery card
or looking calmly out a window.

If my mother were alive,
she’d be 114 years old,
and I am guessing neither of us
would be enjoying her birthday very much.

Mother, I would love to see you again
to take you shopping or to sit
in your sunny apartment with a pot of tea,
but it wouldn’t be the same at 114.

And I’m no prize either,
almost 20 years older than the last time
you saw me sitting by your deathbed.
Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal.

It must have been frigid that morning
in the hour just before dawn
on your first December 1st
at the family farm a hundred miles north of Toronto
.

Happy Birthday, anyway. Happy Birthday to you.
~Billy Collins from “December 1”

December 1st is not my mother’s birthday but it was her death day thirteen years ago.

Yet it felt a bit like a birth.

The call came from the care center about 5:30 AM on the Monday after Thanksgiving on a frozen morning: the nurse gently said her breathing had changed, it wasn’t long now until she’d be gone.

My daughter and I quickly dressed and went out into bleak darkness to make the ten minute drive to where she lay. Mom had been wearily existing since a femur fracture 9 months earlier on a cruel April 1st morning. Everything changed for her at 87 years of being active at home. It was the beginning of the end for her, unable to care for herself at home.

These nine months had been her gestation time to transition to a new life. It occurred to me as I drove – she was about to be born in her long-awaited yet long-feared transition to death.

Her room was darkened except for the multicolored lights on the table top artificial Christmas tree I had brought her a few days earlier. It cast colorful shadows onto the walls and the white bedspread on her hospital bed. It even made her look like she had color to her cheeks where there actually was none.

There was no one home.

She had already left, flown away while we drove the few miles to come to her. There was no reaching her now. Her skin was cooling, her face hollowed by the lack of effort, her body stilled and sunken.

I could not weep at that point – it was time for her to leave us behind. She was so very tired, so very weary, so very ready for heaven. And I, weary too, felt much like yesterday’s oatmeal, something she actually very much loved during her life, cooking up a big batch a couple times a week, enough to last several days.

I knew, seeing what was left of her there in that bed, Mom was no longer settling for yesterday’s oatmeal and no longer homeless. I knew she now she was present for a feast, would never suffer insomnia again, would no longer be fearful of dying, that her cheeks would be forever full of color.

I knew she had a new beginning: the glory of rebirth thanks to her Savior who had gently taken her by the hand to a land where joy would never end.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Happy December 1st Birthday to you.

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

God makes us happy as only children can be happy.
God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away

~Albert Brumley

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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Heed No Nightly Noises

There was a fire in the wide hearth before them, and it was burning with a sweet smell, as if it were built of apple-wood. When everything was set in order, all the lights in the room were put out, except one lamp and a pair of candles at each end of the chimney-shelf. Then Goldberry came and stood before them, holding a candle; and she wished them each a good night and deep sleep.

“Have peace now,” she said, “until the morning! Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top. Good night!” She passed out of the room with a glimmer and a rustle. The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently away downhill over cool stones in the quiet of night.

Tom sat on a while beside them in silence, while each of them tried to muster the courage to ask one of the many questions he had meant to ask at supper. Sleep gathered on their eyelids. At last Frodo spoke: “Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?”

Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings

We wander through this life, sometimes with a destination in mind, but too often lost and surrounded by a darkness threatening to swallow us whole.

It isn’t by chance that we have been rescued and brought to safety.

Our Savior has been waiting for us, hearing us call out for help. Our rescue begins again tomorrow with the Advent of the Light that comes into pitch dark to illuminate our way to becoming un-lost.

No longer do we need to fear the noises of the night or where we take our next step. We are reassured we have been found, as T.S. Eliot wrote of Advent: “the beginning shall remind us of the end and the first coming of the second coming.”

May the coming weeks be a time of peace and reflection:
For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top

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Just Strength to Believe

The care of the disciples was the care for the day,
not for the morrow; the word morrow must stand
for any and every point of the future.
The next hour, the next moment,
is as much beyond our grasp and as much in God’s care,
as that a hundred years away.
Care for the next minute is just as foolish

as care for the morrow,
or for a day in the next thousand years–
in neither can we do anything,
in both God is doing everything.
Those claims only of the morrow

which have to be prepared to-day
are of the duty of to-day;

the moment which coincides with work to be done,
is the moment to be minded;
the next is nowhere till God has made it.
~George McDonald “The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity” from Unspoken Sermons

I come from a long line of worriers, so it comes quite naturally to me to anticipate the cares and concerns not only of this very moment, but every moment to come.

Unfortunately, medical training did little to calm that tendency as every worst-case-scenario is emphasized by every teacher to prepare the doctor-novice for any potential eventuality. Knowing about all the bad things that can happen is essential for disaster-preparedness in order to be ready to leap into action. Hospital rounds focus on the “what-ifs” as much as the “what-is” to be sure that all possible research and due diligence had been done in a particular patient’s case.

So for Jesus to say to His disciples (and us) “Do you not understand?” hits me hard because I’ve spent my life working hard to understand. My training and my human nature tells me to care in advance so I’ll be ready for what is to come; yet, true to form, just as He says, it doesn’t change what will happen.

As I watch the sun rise yet again, watching the fire in the sky light and then slowly fade, I know Who is in control, and it surely is not me. There will be enough for today, enough for tomorrow and enough for all the years to come, because God is enough.

It takes strength to believe that. And that understanding has to be enough.

Thank you to Amy Baik Lee in her essay, which led me to George McDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons” and the song below.

Late nights, long hours
Questions are drawn like a thin red line
No comfort left over
No safe harbor in sight

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

Upstairs a child is sleeping
What a light in our strain and stress
We pray without speaking
Lord help us wait in kindness

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today

There will be enough tomorrow
Songwriters: Sara Groves / Julie Ann Lee / Sarah Dark

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Benign

“They’re benign,” the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot.

~Jo McDougall, “Mammogram” from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

~Lisel Mueller “In November”

It does not escape me,
especially on mammogram days~~

(although I wake every day knowing this):

an earthquake happened somewhere else,
a war left people homeless and lifeless,
a windstorm leveled a town,
a drunk driver destroyed a family,
a fire left a house in ashes,
a famine caused children to starve,
a flood ravaged a village,
a devastating diagnosis darkened
someone’s remaining days.

No mistake has been made,
yet I wake knowing this part of my story
has not yet visited me,
the heavy heart
that could have been mine
is spared again,
still beating,
still breaking,
still bleeding,
still believing
the radiance from this good news is real
and once again happened today.

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On a Monday

My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me;
I stand before it like a tree;

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
― Rainer Maria Rilke from “My Life is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour”

photo by Josh Scholten

On Monday mornings I often feel I’m stuck immobilized in the spot in the middle between discordant notes.

There is on one side of me the pressure of catch-up from what was left undone through the weekend and on the other side is the anticipated demand of the coming week of stressful work I am committed to doing. Before I arrive to work, I dwell uneasily in dead center between the unknown ahead and the known behind.

This moment of rest in the present, this trembling broken Now, is my moment of reconciliation, my Sabbath extended.

This Monday morning I allow myself an instant of silence and reflection before I surge full bore into the week, knowing that on my journey I’ll inevitably hit wrong notes, just as I do when I play, unprepared, at the piano.

But it can be beautiful nevertheless.

Even the least harmonious notes seek reconciliation within the next chord. I now move from the rest of my Sabbath back into the rhythm of my life.

Trembling, still trembling.

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